The Magnetic Fields have released a companion piece to their 2008 album, “Distortion.” The new offering, “Realism,” was intended to be the technical obverse to “Distortion’s” reverse. The layers of amplified reverberation and screeching feedback that defined the last record have been completely stripped away, leaving voices and instruments unmolested. The production has gone from noisy to, well … folksy.
Whether that means The Kingston Trio or Fleet Foxes (which amounts to the same thing), you’re wrong. The Magnetic Fields have used “clean” production before, and “Realism” is a return to the baroque creations featured prominently on “69 Love songs Volume 3.” If you liked the Renaissance Faire sensibility that drove songs like “For We Are the King of the Boudoir,” then you’ll be happy to know this album is awash in mandolins, harpsichords and glockenspiels. But, in many ways this approach makes for the most difficult and least accessible record possible. Consequently, “Realism” is an especially difficult proposition for anyone who loved the chaos of “Distortion.” Thankfully, the opening track, “You Must be out of Your Mind,” serves as a soothing reassurance that all is in order, and that Stephin Merritt’s songwriting remains both overtly literate and overwhelmingly bitter: “I want you crawling back to me, down on your knees, yeah/Like an appendectomy, sans anesthesia.”
One nice side-effect of the nearly-naked production is an easy understanding of the lyrics. Another plus is the prominence of the melodies; a good thing because there’s some really pretty stuff here.
Arguably the prettiest song on the album, “I Don’t Know What to Say,” is an oxymoronic, articulate description of utter in-articulation (if that makes any sense). Occasionally, these pretty melodies are actually uplifting.
“Everything is One Big Christmas Tree” is a rousing number that has a wonderful German singalong and encourages us to start drinking beer instead of reading books, while “The Dada Polka” similarly urges the listener to “Gyrate like a Gyroscope/Collide like a Kaleidoscope.”
Even more fun, “The Dolls’ Tea Party” is essentially “California Girls” moved backward in time, attacking breezies from 1910 instead of 2010: “At the Dolls’ Tea party we fritter away the long afternoon of a long summer day/With extended pinkies and pink cloisonné.” The plinking, kitschy arrangement makes this song feel somehow more cutting than the open threat in “California Girls” to ax down countless empty-headed blondes.
Undoubtedly, there is a lot to like about this record. As befitting as any Magnetic Fields outing, it’s full of cleverness — both musically and wordily. It’s also a beautiful, beautiful exercise in sound production with no dirty tricks, allowing the real instrumentation to stand on its own merit.
But, as much as I enjoy this record, I can’t wait until the next one — wherein the band will revive their rich history with synthesized strings, thumping drum machines and all other things dance-y, filthily artificial and otherwise wonderful.